Ferry, Harbor, Quarry, Love
Catching the boat for an end-of-summer visit to Vinalhaven, a granite island about 12 miles offshore from Rockland
I keep finding myself looking for the little black cat—the one written about by author Margaret Wise Brown, who spent more than a dozen summers on Vinalhaven and who penned The Little Fisherman, Goodnight Moon, and dozens of other classic children’s books. Her story The Little Island sticks with me the most. I could always picture the boats, and the island where “seaweed squeaked at low tide” and “herring and mackerel leaped out of the water all silver in the moonlight.”
Finally, I have come to Vinalhaven to see for myself. We caught one of the six-a-day ferry crossings from Rockland on an early September morning of blues and grays, from the sky to the horizon to the water of Penobscot Bay. The boat had motored from the harbor past the Rockland Breakwater Light, and in another hour or so, the 12.5-mile bay crossing brought us near the southwest shoreline of Vinalhaven and threaded through the smaller islands just offshore.
Vinalhaven is about the size of Manhattan, but there’s not a skyscraper in sight.
The ferry docks in Carvers Harbor, which is lined with bobbing sailboats, fishing boats, and dinghies on moorings. It’s the kind of harbor that feels cozy and protected because its entire span is visible from shore to shore. We grab our duffel bags—I’m traveling with photographer Peter Frank Edwards—and we start following the shoreline road by foot. The harbor narrows in a V-shape converging at the town’s Main Street buildings, and at the very center of the “V” we find the Tidewater, the motel where we’ll be staying.
The lodging’s structure is an overwater marvel. On the former site of a granite-polishing mill, the small motel’s primary building bridges the only passage between the harbor and its tidal estuary, Carver’s Pond. Flowing with the tides, water washes in and out twice a day through the channel.
From a vantage point on the Tidewater side of Main Street, and soon from the other side beside the Harbor Gawker restaurant, we watch the rushing seawater until the smells of seafood and french fries draws us inside. Housed in what was once a bowling alley, the restaurant has a wood-paneled interior, and its menu is written on boards overhead and beside the counter; it’s an old-school fish house with vintage lobster traps overhead and red checkered tablecloths. We order up haddock fish tacos, lobster stew (a steamy milk broth brimming with claw and tail meat), and a basket of deep-fried clams and scallops. I notice a lot of smiling and chatting between tables—it feels as if most of the customers and staff all already know each other. That makes sense, especially when I learn that every meal that month is sort of a farewell. After serving meals for more than 40 years and having been owned by generations of Mortons, a local family, the restaurant would be permanently closing at the end of the season. (A couple, Lauren and Brian Weisenthal, have since opened a new restaurant in the space, the Nightingale.)
Just down Main Street, the dominant building is the pale yellow former Odd Fellows hall known as the Star of Hope Lodge. We’re drawn to it, naturally. At three stories tall, the Victorian manse with a center turret towers above the rest of the buildings. We could see it from the deck on the ferry as soon as we reached the mouth of the harbor. After visiting Vinalhaven in the 1970s, pop artist Robert Indiana (1928-2018) had left New York to buy the building for his home and studio and lived there year-round for decades. On the side- walk out front is a steel version of Indiana’s HOPE sculpture with its tilted “O” (as in his earlier LOVE image, of poster and postage stamp fame). Behind it are four panels adorned in the peeling paint of rippling red, white, and blue flag designs. It’s striking to see these simple, iconic words and symbols— and to consider the meanings in the modern era—while on an island of just 1,200 or so people, miles from the Maine coast. Islands give space for deeper thinking, I believe.
Back at the Tidewater Motel, we chat with owner Phil Crossman about the island and its geography. He points to a map of Vinalhaven. “It’s nine miles across from here to here,” he says. “But how many miles of coastline do you think?”
Crossman traces a Vinalhaven map with his finger. The irregular shape reminds me of Mount Desert Island. There are lobes and coves, peninsulas and islands just offshore. There’s a sheltered basin on the island’s western side that he notes is terrific for kayaking. And Browns Head Light on the northwest point is a guiding light for boats in the Fox Islands Thorofare, the channel between Vinalhaven and North Haven islands. The six-foot-four innkeeper explains that he made it a personal goal to walk the entire coast of Vinalhaven in a series of hikes, and it took him three years to complete all sections of the winding, jagged coastline. He logged the mileage, and the final tally was 268 miles.
I’m already island-captivated as we make our way up two stair landings to the top floor and use the key (on a lobster buoy–shaped key chain) to open the door to room 19, the Crow’s Nest. From the harbor-facing room’s small out- door deck, I look downward to see and hear the ocean water streaming past underneath. We’re certainly not adrift at the Tidewater, but I feel the distinct sensation of being on a boat.
This is a lobstering island, and lobster fishermen seem to be everywhere—on the water and zooming past in trucks on island roads. The ferry accommodates cars but we arrived on foot, so we borrow bicycles from the motel to explore a bit further. With a folded map in my pocket, we pedal beyond Main Street and begin to get a little closer to Vinalhaven’s year-round lobstering culture among the coves, wooded trails, and shingled and clapboard houses.
We pedal to Lane’s Island Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, which juts out beyond the harbor. After we park the bikes and follow a path under trees, we come upon picnic tables on a cove and a line of kids who happen to be cartwheeling across the scene. On Round the Mountain Road, we see blackberries and wildflowers in bloom, and we eventually make it to a private pedestrian bridge that crosses Indian Creek at a house with lobster buoys and traps stacked all around. A sign from the owner indicates that it’s okay to use the bridge but advises that cyclists should dismount to cross safely.
At Zach’s Shack on Old Harbor Road, we meet a couple of young entrepreneurs. The shop specializes wooden buoys and birdhouses, fanciful wooden sea creatures, books, toys, and other hand- made and Maine-crafted items. I realize this is the source of the hand-painted mini-buoy keychains from the motel. The shop’s namesake is here: Zach Sanborn is a teenager with Down syndrome who paints many of the items and does other crafts, fishes on lobster boats, and competes in Special Olympics Maine for swimming. Zach’s sister, Jess Sanborn, is also at work inside and explains that they grew up visiting Vinalhaven with their family. From Dresden, their parents started fixing up a cottage on the property about 30 years ago, and after Zach found success selling seashells one summer, the family decided to retool a roadside shed on the property to create the shop, which opened in 2015. Their father, Stephen Sanborn, is a woodworker and had been building birdhouses with Zach, typically with old license plates as the metal roofs. The birdhouses are a big seller. And the family does custom work, including buoy “garlands” for the holidays, painted to order.
All of these are replicas of actual buoys, the typically brightly-colored floats used to mark the locations of lobster traps. Each licensed fisherman or fisherwoman has his or her own color markings, and Jess explains how the shop is often able to return actual buoys to their owners. If a tourist finds a buoy washed up on the beach, the shopkeepers will offer a keychain in trade, and then dis- play the buoy at the shop in hopes of returning it to the owner.
While we’re talking, Chuck Williams, a lobsterman and rigger, stops by in his truck. He says the Sanborn family is “loaded with creativity” and asks to see the newest art pieces. His favorites are the wooden fish and sea monsters, he tells us. “I like the ones with the biggest eyes and the biggest teeth,” he says with a big smile, and Zach’s smiling, too.
In the morning we order coffees, a croissant, and a scone inside Downstreet Market, a handsome old apothecary-turned-bakery on Main Street with a pressed tin ceiling and built-in wooden shelves and cabinetry arrayed with vintage silver teapots, teacups, crystal wine glasses and cruets, and vintage and new linens, all for sale. We have the long wooden communal table to ourselves for a while, and every few minutes a baker emerges from the kitchen to set out a pie or another tray of muffins, scones, or croissants.
I want to pedal again, and we do. Heading east, we stop at the large, green Victorian house with a low iron fence that’s home to Hedgewick, a source for island-grown flowers. Then, somewhere between the Main Street shops and Lane’s Island Preserve, we follow a trail lined with ferns into Armbrust Hill Town Park.
By noontime we’ve made our way to one of the island’s long-abandoned quarries, now used for swimming. Booth Quarry is a spring-fed pool in a former granite quarry with depths up to 50 feet. We watch as a teenage boy jumps off a high ledge and a younger kid dips his toe in the water and squeals at the cold temperature. The challenge is on. I’m wearing a swimsuit under my clothes for just this possibility. Swimming in the often chilly water of Maine is something I’ve learned to love—once I’m in. If you don’t jump quickly, you’ve got to work up to it. At Booth Quarry, I’m aided by a submerged ledge where one can stand in knee-deep water awhile and consider her options. Eventually, in the bright sun, I dive in with a splash—earning the bowl of seafood chowder we’ll pedal back for at the Harbor Gawker afterward.
On the Main
Later, returning to Vinalhaven’s Main Street, we also stop at Island Spirits for a bottle of Italian rosé. At the Creelman Farm Store I try a hot chai made with fresh goat milk (the owners have goats and a small dairy on the island), and then we check out the New Era Gallery’s collection, including beautiful paintings of Vinalhaven by Penobscot Bay–based artist Scott Moore. Over dinner at Salt Restaurant, we try a margarita and mojito (we’re on an island, after all), a dozen North Haven oysters on ice, and a crème brûlée to share.
That night, from the Crow’s Nest at the Tidewater, the land around the harbor looks like a pair of arms pulling everything in. Or is it that the tide is washing everything out? Observing Carvers Harbor on Vinalhaven over a couple of days has stoked my imagination.
It’s hours past sunset, and the sky is blue- black above a few dozen glowing lights still lit in houses and buildings at edges of the harbor—almost like summer fireflies. Recalling again the storybook tales of Margaret Wise Brown, on Vinalhaven it’s another good night for the moon.